Will Dylann Roof’s Execution Bring Justice? Families of Victims Grapple With Forgiveness and Death

A federal jury unanimously agreed on a death sentence after three hours of deliberation. Victims' families have expressed a range of reactions to the prospect of Roof's execution.

Rain falls as pallbearers exit Emanuel AME Church carrying the casket of Cynthia Hurd as mourners for Susie Jackson and Tywanza Sanders file inside the church for their funerals Saturday, June 27, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. Hurd, Jackson and Sanders were three of the nine people killed in the shooting at the church on June 17. (Grace Beahm/The Post And Courier via AP)
Rain falls as pallbearers exit Emanuel AME Church carrying the casket of Cynthia Hurd on June 27, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. Photo: Grace Beahm/The Post And Courier via AP

The first thing you see when you walk into the home of Arthur Stephen Hurd is a row of oversized photographs of his wife, Cynthia. They are displayed along the wall on the right, placed on chairs and propped against the fireplace. In one corner is a portrait taken around the time they met. She’s in her early thirties, radiant in a colorful high-neck sweater and gold earrings. Further down is a picture from their wedding day – they wear dark, formal outfits; Cynthia beams, holding a red bouquet. Leaning on the fireplace is a photo of the pair boarding a Carnival cruise ship a year later – a trip to celebrate their anniversary. In the middle of the display is a framed picture of the luminous stained glass windows above the pulpit at Charleston’s historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. This is where Cynthia died, shot to death alongside eight fellow parishioners by 21-year-old Dylann Roof in 2015.

Photographs of Cynthia Maria Hurd are displayed in the living room of the North Charleston home of her widower, Arthur Stephen Hurd, on Jan. 6, 2017.

Photographs of Cynthia Maria Hurd are displayed in the living room of the North Charleston home of her widower, Arthur Stephen Hurd, on Jan. 6, 2017.

Photo: Liliana Segura/The Intercept
The photos were last displayed at Cynthia’s funeral, held at Mother Emanuel, as the church is known, and attracting hundreds of mourners. Since then, Hurd has received countless gifts and messages of support, many from strangers: a three-panel poster board that came in the mail, filled with signatures from people he does not know; a wooden cross on the mantle from a Baptist congregation in Texas, reading, “We Will Never Forget Cynthia Hurd.” And in the front yard, a statue of an angel, donated by a landscaping company in Spartanburg, SC.

I met Hurd on Friday, the third day of Roof’s sentencing trial, which ended today with a federal jury returning a punishment of death. Hurd had spent that day in court, hoping to take the stand as one of a long procession of government witnesses called to testify about their loved ones. But prosecutors chose three other people to talk about his wife instead. Each was powerful in their own way: Her brother Malcolm, a former lawmaker in North Carolina, said Cynthia was his “protector” growing up, the one who would see his report cards before their parents did. Her friend and fellow librarian Patrice Smith described how she had helped her through a miscarriage and a divorce, giving her a gift card for groceries when she was struggling to make ends meet. And in particularly emotional testimony, her younger sister, Jackie, described how she had discovered she had cancer after Cynthia urged her to get a mammogram. The diagnosis came just one month before the shooting. “I got you,” Cynthia had said.

Hurd, who goes by Steve, has stories too – more than 20 years’ worth. There is the one of how they met: He was driving down King Street when he saw Cynthia leaving the Human Services Commission, next to the library where she worked. “I told my brother he was gonna have to take the wheel because I was getting out of the car,” he says. He speaks low and soft, describing her with photographic precision. “She had a bag of Lays chips in her right hand, a can of Coca Cola in her left hand. She had on navy blue slacks, blue sling-back heels, a white French cuff shirt, her hair pulled back and tied with a blue bow.”

Cynthia turned him down multiple times, only to ask for his phone number when he came to the library one day. They went to see “Mrs. Doubtfire” on their first date. “Seemed like we were the only two people in that theater with a sense of humor,” he says.

Cynthia was ten years older than Hurd, yet they connected. “She had a degree in math and a masters in library science,” Hurd says. “I have a degree in physics, chemistry and math education.” On the stand earlier that day, Malcolm, her brother, had joked that she was a “nerd.” In Hurd, she found someone who spoke her language.

CHARLESTON, SC - JUNE 20:  Arthur Hurd (C) tells the story of the first time he saw his wife, librarian Cynthia Hurd, while talking to reporters outside the historic Emanuel African Methodist Church where she and eight others were shot to death June 20, 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina. Hurd is a merchant marine and was in the Persian Gulf when his wife was killed and returned to Charleston Saturday. Members of the church announced that services and Sunday school will go ahead as scheduled tomorrow, four days after the murder of nine churchgoers. Suspect Dylann Storm Roof, 21, was captured and charged in their deaths.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In this photo from June 20, 2015, Arthur Hurd tells the story of the first time he saw his wife, librarian Cynthia Hurd, while talking to reporters outside the historic Emanuel AME Church where she and eight others were shot to death in Charleston, S.C.

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The couple dated for seven years before getting married in 2001. Hurd eventually went to work as a merchant seaman, where he was often deployed for months at a time. In November 2014, he left the country, boarding a ship as a refrigeration engineer off the coast of Oman. “When I got on board the system was all screwed up,” he says. “I rebuilt everything.” He had been scheduled to come back in May 2015, but the work was substantial – he extended his trip a little while longer. He was still overseas when Cynthia stopped by Mother Emanuel on June 17 to drop something off, deciding to stay for Bible study.

Hurd has replayed the events before and after Cynthia’s death again and again. He recites them like a script, rapidly and with meticulous detail. How he had made preparations for Cynthia’s upcoming birthday, ordering a pizza, chicken wings and a cake that said “Happy Birthday Boss Lady, Love Big Arthur,” for a party at the library. How he was tired and not planning to call her that night, but did it anyway – she demanded that he say “I love you” multiple times. How he woke up soaking wet from a nightmare, later finding no new emails from his wife. When his mother told him over the phone there had been a shooting at Mother Emanuel, he did not understand: Cynthia had told him she was only planning to pass by the church that night. “No, she stayed for Bible study,” his mother said. “What did you just say?” he asked. “She stayed for Bible study,” she answered.

Over the phone, a coroner at the scene described the clothing of one of the victims in the church who might be his wife, but could not confirm her identity – the woman was in a pool of blood and could not be moved. The outfit she wore sounded like Cynthia – black loafers, gray slacks, a white shirt – except for a lime green sweater he had never seen. Later, Hurd got in touch with her boss, who pulled up surveillance tape from that day. When Cynthia came into view, he described her outfit: “Black loafers, gray clacks, a white shirt and a lime green sweater.” It was then Hurd knew his wife was dead.

On the long journey home from the port city of Duqm, Oman, Hurd found himself watching CNN International, which aired a report from Roof’s bond hearing. “I listened to people say they forgave him right there on the spot,” Hurd said. “I can say this: Before my wife’s body hit the ground, she’d already forgiven him. Me? I haven’t.”

Yet Hurd does not need Roof to get the death penalty. “Cynthia wasn’t a big proponent of that,” he says. “Up until this point, I really was. Now, all I can say is, if they give him death, that’s the easy way out.”

Forgiveness became a loaded concept in the wake of the Charleston massacre. The prevailing media narrative – of an exemplary black community that remained peaceful and forgiving rather than falling prey to riots – was offensive for the assumptions it contained. Yet the dominant image was even invoked by Hillary Clinton during the presidential race. After violence broke out between protesters and Donald Trump supporters in Chicago last March, Clinton released a statement calling on Americans to be more like the grieving relatives of the Emanuel 9, who “melted hearts” with their forgiveness – the “model we strive for to overcome painful divisions in this country.” The response angered many as insensitive and tone-deaf, drawing a false equivalence between defenders of Trump’s racism and those who were protesting against it.

The forgiveness story also failed to capture the full spectrum of sentiment in Charleston, where there was no shortage of rage. Last November, local journalist Shani Gilchrist wrote a column for the Charleston City Paper, urging fellow writers to stop feeding a narrative that had spun “wildly out of control,” reminding readers that, at the famed bond hearing for Roof in 2015, there were only two family members who said they forgave Roof. “This forgiveness was personal, and the nation turned it into a blanket statement representing every victim’s family,” she wrote. On a deeper level, there was a sense that the model of forgiveness so praised and admired by white people allowed Americans to divest themselves of the task of dealing with the roots of the hate that animated Roof’s deadly actions. In Charleston, where the legacy of slavery is literally everywhere, tours still peddle an image of a “genteel, gracious Southern city,” Gilchrist wrote, substituting the word “servant” for “slave.”

In the months following the shooting, a PBS town hall was filmed at a different church downtown, titled America After Charleston and hosted by Gwen Ifill. “We have to tell the truth about this country,” said 75-year-old Emanuel parishioner Willi Glee, who was at the Bible study that night but left early. “We have to say that the country was founded as a racist, white supremacist society. And Dylann Roof is just a byproduct of that.” Malcolm Graham was also there, invoking his sister, Cynthia. “I have a forgiving spirit,” he said. But “I do not forgive.” As the audience applauded, he said, “It’s okay to be angry.”

In the meantime, Mother Emanuel had became something of a tourist mecca, with white visitors showing up for Sunday service while on vacation. Many wished to tell church leaders personally that Roof did not represent what was in their hearts. The New York Times published a photo of a white tourist from Ohio hugging Reverend Dr. Norvell Goff. The church still welcomes visitors with open arms. But it has also struggled with problems more pressing than attending to its new visitors. The Times noted a lawsuit filed by Steve Hurd accusing the church of being neither “transparent nor forthcoming” when it came to the donations that had poured into the church on behalf of the Emanuel 9, a charge he repeated in our interview.

A man stops to observe the makeshift memorial in front of Mother Emanuel AME Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina on January 4, 2017. Dylann Roof, the self-described white supremacist who gunned down nine black churchgoers in a Charleston church, offered no apology or motive for his actions as a jury began considering whether to sentence him to death. / AFP / Logan Cyrus (Photo credit should read LOGAN CYRUS/AFP/Getty Images)

A man stops to observe the makeshift memorial in front of Emanuel AME Church in downtown Charleston, S.C. on Jan. 4, 2017.

Photo: Logan Cyrus/AFP/Getty Images

On the Sunday before jurors would decide whether Roof will live or die, flowers and Christmas decorations adorned the base of Mother Emanuel, where a sign reads “We Thank You For Your Many Acts Of Kindness.” At the 9:30 service on January 8, a group of visiting white bishops hailed from Oregon, Texas, Pennsylvania and Delaware. Invited to introduce themselves, one man shared his commitment “to eradicate the scourges of racism.”

On the Prayer List in the program were the Emanuel 9, along with “survivors and all families of Mother Emanuel.” Following the Hymn of Praise, Reverend Edward Decree gave the invocation, offering thanks and praise to God, while offering prayers “for those who are in prison all over this land” as well as “those who are in prison in mind and in spirit.” In his rousing sermon, Rev. Eric S.C. Manning never mentioned the Roof trial explicitly, but acknowledged that for many, the week had been hard. He feverishly exhorted worshippers to draw strength from God’s devotion to them. “Simply put, He brought us this far. Together He shall never leave us. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that He will continue to bring us through not only last week, but He will continue to bring us through this week. And this month and next year.”

“Don’t worry about how it’s going to turn out,” Rev. Manning urged, enjoining his parishioners to look to God for strength. “You may have been down, but you’re definitely not out.”

On the next morning, government prosecutors brought their last round of witnesses to speak about the youngest of Roof’s victims, 26-year-old Tywanza Sanders. Among them was his father, Tyrone. The previous week, I’d met a man who went to school with Tyrone Sanders, who said he was having a very hard time. “He’s not the one of the forgiving ones,” he said. On the stand, Sanders spoke haltingly about his son, describing how much he misses fishing with him, how they used to drive together to homecoming football games every October. Now, he said, he has no one to ride with.

The final witness was Felicia Sanders, Tywanza’s mother. She survived the massacre at Emanuel; jurors had previously heard her describe how she had seen Roof shoot her son to death after Tywanza said, “You don’t have to do this. We mean you no harm.” Laying still in her son’s blood while clutching her 11-year-old granddaughter, Felicia Sanders played dead – and both of them made it out alive. Sanders has said she will respect whatever decision is made about Roof’s fate, although reports have said she would have been fine with Roof’s offer to plead guilty in exchange for a sentence of life without parole. Her friend and attorney, Charleston lawyer Andy Savage, has been outspoken in his belief that Roof should get a life sentence rather than the death penalty. Yet Sanders made headlines after her testimony at trial, saying about Roof: “There’s no place on Earth for him except the pit of hell.”

Sanders took the stand while still wiping her eyes. Like witnesses before her, she shared poignant highlights of her son’s life; his love of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as a child, how he doted on his cousins as a young adult, wanting to escort one of them to his prom despite her protests. How he refused to leave her own side when she was being treated for cancer, forcing her to go on walks with him during her recovery because “a body at rest stays at rest.” She described a moped he used to ride, how she was so relieved when it got stolen. “I thought that was gonna be the life of him,” she said. “I was so afraid of him on that moped on I-26.” Instead, he died doing the very thing she had always taught her kids to do, to go to church, because the word Bible stood for Basic Instruction Before Leaving Earth. That was what her son and aunt were getting at Bible study that night. “I did not know that was gonna be the life of them,” Sanders said. “I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that.”

Over the Christmas break between the guilt phase and the sentencing trial, while others went home to see family, Hurd woke up in the middle of the night. His tradition with Cynthia was to get up at midnight and exchange two gifts, then go back to bed. But now he was alone, having momentarily forgotten that his wife is gone. “I’ve been home for a while now,” he says quietly. “And I’m so lonely. I go to the grave and I get a lawn chair and I sit for hours at a time. I would give all of my smarts, all of my talents, every dollar I have. My lungs, my kidneys, my heart. Just for a moment to hear her voice. Forty-five seconds to kiss her. Thirty seconds to hold her hand.”

One thing that keeps him going is a plan to start a charitable organization called Your Opportunity*, which would provide support to individuals “who want to do something with their lives.” He wants to help the kinds of people in whom his wife saw potential. “It doesn’t say you have to go to church, it doesn’t say you can’t have a felony record.” It will be a combination of financial aid and mentorship. “If you don’t have  GED,” for example, “we’re gonna get you through that.”

FILE - In this June 18, 2015 file photo, Charleston, S.C., shooting suspect Dylann Storm Roof is escorted from the Cleveland County Courthouse in Shelby, N.C. The sentencing phase of Roof's federal trial begins Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2016, in Charleston. He could face the death penalty or life in prison. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton, File)

Dylann Storm Roof is escorted from the Cleveland County Courthouse in Shelby, N.C. on June 18, 2015.

Photo: Chuck Burton/AP
The government’s closing statement on Tuesday morning lasted two hours. Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Richardson discussed Roof’s victims one by one, urging jurors to sentence him to death. At one point, Richardson invoked Hurd’s love for his wife, Cynthia. Because of Roof, he argued, Hurd “no longer will see that bright smile on her face.”

As Roof is sent to federal death row to face execution, Hurd will continue to work on forgiving him. “I know that I have to, because he is occupying space in my head that’s not necessary,” Hurd says. He compares the process to moving a grand piano up a flight of stairs. “Some days I make good progress. Some days, I stand still because I have to breathe. And some days, I fall back a few steps because it’s too damn heavy.” Hurd says he would feel satisfaction if Roof were to spend the rest of his days in prison, preferably in general population. “I refuse to hate him,” he says. “But I think of him with much disdain. How dare he decide who lives and who dies?”

Before I left his house that night, Hurd showed me a letter Cynthia wrote to him the month before her death. She had spoken to her husband on the phone earlier that day; in the letter, she wrote, “It’s obvious you’re feeling some kind of way….I know you are missing home and fishing so I thought I’d send some articles and current magazines to read. Hope you like them.”

“It’s funny,” she went on in the letter. Two days earlier, she had witnessed a potential domestic violence situation, yet on that day, she had married a couple with their six-month old son present. “Everyday is one of change and transition and happiness or sadness. No matter what, we must maintain hope and love. Tenacity (one of the characteristics I love about you) and commitment will get us through all that life has for us. Love will sustain us always.”


*Hurd has already selected the first round of Your Opportunity participants, who he wished to be recognized. They are: Darnell White, aspiring truck driver; Nancy Roses, aspiring hairdresser; Patricia Strong, aspiring caterer; Kevin Hutchinson, aspiring chef; Antoine Rouse, aspiring jail bondsman; and Aries Nelson, aspiring business owner.

Top photo: Rain falls as pallbearers exit Emanuel AME Church carrying the casket of Cynthia Hurd on June 27, 2015, in Charleston, S.C.

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